When our Learning and Evaluation Manager Hilary isn't improving the way things work here at the Trust, they're helping people to improve their mental health as a counsellor. Here they have collected together some of the insights counselling can provide to enhance the process of funding evaluation.
As the Learning and Evaluation Manager at Trust for London, I work with our staff and funded organisations so that we can learn, reflect and improve what we do - to tackle poverty better. That is one part of my working week, I also work as a counsellor, supporting people directly as they make sense of their lives, grapple with mental health and make the changes they want. I’m struck every time I switch between the two roles of the similarities – and I’ve come to thinking – is good evaluation therapy for organisations? There are four elements that particularly resonate.
Counselling starts with listening, really listening, to what’s going on. It sounds simple, but most of my training as a therapist was about learning this skill and how to be aware of all the things that get in the way: your own experience, your expectations, your prejudices, your desire to fix things quickly and magic pain away. These things all show up in organisations too – good evaluation needs good listening! Planning an evaluation means trying to surface the assumptions about how things work and what the problems really are. There are often differences between different parts of an organisation – senior and frontline staff, and what it feels okay to say (particularly to funders or other outsiders). Listening, building trust, and trying to tune out other influences is often the first step.
2. Digging deeper, gathering data
It’s perhaps surprising, but counsellors are in the business of getting to the root of things – gently gathering data to better understand clients and help clients better understand themselves. That might be working out timelines for when a problem started, or what scenarios trigger responses. It could be looking at how a client copes with difficult times, and if it still works for them. Organisations and projects need this too if they want to adapt and survive. Organisational patterns and responses that worked five years ago might now be harming the organisation – and getting to grips with that can be an important part of continuing to do good work.
3. Changing patterns
People come to counselling because they want change, and evaluation should be the same for organisations. It’s about identifying what’s working and what isn’t so that you can adapt and do better. That might be about identifying a skills gap and learning a new approach, or introducing a different way of doing things. With clients it’s the same, you can learn new ways to respond to anger, or manage depression, talk to your mum, or approach stressful situations. Change is often scary, particularly if you have always done things that way. But it can also be exciting. Challenge, delivered with warmth and in the spirit of learning is key.
4. Trying things out
Counselling is a space to experiment with a new approach, or to try doing something differently. Often it’s about supporting people to know that it’s okay to try something, even if it doesn’t work out how they expect. Organisations also need to know it’s okay to try new things – and evaluation can be a way of ensuring you’re doing that in a way that you can catch the learning from it.
Not just a hoop to jump through
So why does this matter? Trust for London puts a real emphasis on trying to support a learning culture, but often evaluation is seen as cold, technical, and threatening. It’s something you have to do for a funder, for external accountability, a hoop to jump through. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Evaluation can be warm, supportive, curious – because we know that people learn best when they feel safe. They do remarkable, creative things when they can reflect and learn. At its core, that is what I love about evaluation and about counselling. The possibilities they offer as processes which at their best open up spaces for learning and change.